I am by nature an intense individual. I’m not afraid of conflict, in fact I enjoy it to some degree. I grew up in a family that confronted each other, had a coach that was confrontational, and even some teachers and bosses who used that trait. In many cases while some discomfort would arise from the situation there was always trust on both sides which meant that once the issue was resolved all parties would move on.This willingness to address uncomfortable situations often lead to solutions to problems that probably would have gotten worse over time had the topic been ignored.
In my opinion we have become to some degree phobic about using healthy conflict, particularly in the work place and absolutely in the volunteer world. Affability has become the dominant personality trait needed to advance one’s career and serve peacefully on a non-profit board, even if that results in being unproductive.
We have all heard it before. Some organization will hire someone new and the first reaction will be “Gee he seems like a really good guy.” Or conversely if a rumored problem begins to gain traction about somebody the response might be ” Gee I find that hard to believe because he seems like a really good guy.”
We now need to be sensitive to the perceived emotional needs of our employees or the employees of the non-profit. If there is an issue or problem rather than just swiftly addressing it at a board or business meeting,(which is what I used to think those meetings were for), now there generally are off the record informal meetings held to ascertain how to best address that problem and how to be sure that the offending party is well, not offended themselves. The formal meeting has evolved into a mechanism for the discussion of issues in a superficial way. It allows a person to meet their job criteria because they can point to meetings as a way of defending poor performance, for example “I’m not sure why our numbers are down, we covered all of that in our last few meetings”. People are treated as being fragile and communication regarding the simplest issue has to be done in the most measured and accomodating way possible.
I have had some great mentors and over the years a few have offered advice in this area. Richard Knight, a retired attorney and Chairman of the Board of Resource Bank in Covington, Louisiana once told me that it is acceptable to disagree as long as you are not disagreeable. George Cassard, who basically taught me the credit analysis skills I needed to advance in banking when I was at the Whitney National Bank in New Orleans said that everyone worked a job in their own way and that to manage properly you had to understand and respect those differences. But the most telling advice came from Robert Merrick, CEO of Latter & Blum in New Orleans. Almost ten years ago we were having dinner at my request. I wanted him to critique me and give me advice on how I could better progress in my career.He told me that I should strive to be the most well liked person in whatever department or company I worked for.
None of those men were afraid of conflict. George in particular created conflict for me all the time by challenging me,( He once said to me in a very loud voice for all to hear ” You don’t know accounting!” At the time he was right),but I trusted him to know that it was never personal. Like the Corleone’s always said, it was strictly business. But Bob Merrick’s remarks hit home. No matter how gifted or talented I was if my intensity and drive to succeed made some people around me uncomfortable, a less qualified but more affable candidate would move farther along in the organization. I needed to have a game that was more on finesse and less direct. If a foreign object was in the punch bowl I needed to allude to the object, or better yet see if I could get someone else to notice it.
I began to believe that my advancement now hinged not only on the actual ability to work well but the perceived ability to work well. Deception now was a trait to be mastered because if you spoke your mind bluntly any lack of trust with the other parties could end up with that trait working against you, even if the problems you were concerned about were costing the company money. Subtle suggestions off the record now became the norm. With non-profits you can’t raise a question during a board meeting because of the potential to embarrass somebody, so you and others make a series of clandestine phone calls,texts, or e-mails to get other people on board and then you spend more time trying to figure out the best way to get the issue on the table. Goals have to be nebulous and hard to measure, ( We want to be the standard bearer for customer service!), rather than something that can measured and quantified. I also had to build alliances with people higher up the chain of command in my organization, and it was just as important for them to like me as it was for them to believe that I was capable at doing my job.
Reknowned author Patrick Lencioni has a great book called the Five Dysfunctions of Team. Those dysfunctions are listed as the Absence of Trust, Fear of Conflict, Lack of Commitment, Avoidance of Accountability, and Inattention to Results. We are now more concerned about the needs of the one as opposed to the needs of the many ( Forgive me Mr. Spock from Star Trek II The Wrath of Khan). The best training now is to watch Big Brother.
Big Brother is a reality television show where a group of strangers from all walks of life are locked in a house together with no access to the outside world. One by one they vote each other out until one remains who then wins $500,000. The psychology of the show is amazing with deception, lying, and the formation of alliances impacting the results. This year was a little different. Four men decided to band together from the beginning. Three of them have made it to the final four and they are about to vote out the last person not in their alliance. Their trust bond was so strong that they are going to maintain their alliance once the show is over to try and maximize their fifteen minutes of fame. They created conflict amongst each other but resisted the temptation to crumble their alliance and they used affability and deception to defeat more skilled players who were confrontational in a threatening way.
I have learned that staying away from the water cooler is almost as important as being good at what I do. I have learned that falling on one’s sword might get the problem solved but that no good deed goes unpunished. That being liked is possibly better than being good and that conflict needs to be reserved for situations that are at their most dire. The irony is that had some conflict occurred earlier said situation may never have gotten dire in the first place.
So in the words of that great philosopher Barney the Dinosaur let me close by saying I like you, you like me, oh well you know the rest.